5 Questions for the stars of the Little Kids Rock charity fundraiser

As music and art programs have been getting cut from schools in recent years, very little has been done to supplement what is being lost but the not-for-profit Little Kids Rock program started by former teacher David Wells 10 years ago, aims at restoring and revitalizing music education in public schools. The program’s annual charity event honored E Street Band member and Soprano’s star Steven Van Zandt with the “Big Man” award (named for his band mate Clarence Clemons who passed away last year) for his charitable work in music education this year and raised $800,000 thanks to ticket sales and a memorabilia auction.  The event featured an array of guests including Elvis Costello, American Idol winner Kris Allen, Tom Morello, Darlene Love, Dion, The Midtown Men (the original cast of The Jersey Boys) and others along with surprise guests Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny who joined Steven onstage for a few songs. I had a chance to speak with some of the performers and guests backstage about the topic.

Hey Steve, congratulations! I’m a high school teacher myself. I teach art and media.  You know, even in higher income schools, arts and music programs are really getting cut now so it’s across the board, I just wanted to have your thoughts on that.

Steven Van Zandt: I was contacted by the Music Teachers of America, I’m not sure how long ago now. They said “what can you do as far as classes being cut” so I went to the hill to find out what’s going on.  I spoke with Teddy Kennedy and I spoke to Mitch McConnell and I said look, we have an unintended consequence of ‘No Child Left Behind’. You know all the great intentions in the world to improve the scores of math and science tests, but first of all, every statistic shows that kids who take music class do better in math and science and this obsession with testing is causing all the art classes to be cut and they both apologized and said “we know this is going on and frankly we can’t fix it, we have a whole lot of other things going on over here, we’re not going to get to that” and I was like oh, that’s great.  So I said okay, we’ll have to come back and fight that war another day, so I started Rock and Roll Forever Foundation to write a history of rock and roll instead, which is something I know we can get into schools, it could be cross curricular and it doesn’t have to be during the high school years when they are obsessed with testing and we will be in a pilot program as early as next year. We are writing 200 lesson plans on the history of rock and roll. Meanwhile, my wife met Dave and was coming to these events years ago and said come down, it really is a cool thing and it’s great to watch the kids eyes light up when you hand them a guitar. I mean, one thing that I’ve learned along the way in my work with the Rock and Roll Foundation and being in a class with Little Kids Rock as well, you know if a kid likes one single class or one single teacher they will stay in school.  We’re not really talking about it in this country but we have a drop out epidemic that is out of control, okay, 1 out of 4, 1 out of 5 are dropping out across the country, 1 out of 2 in poor neighborhoods. So picture our country in 10, 20 years from now, we’re going to be in big trouble. Yes, we all love music and we are the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury, which it’s not. As important as the music is we are also hoping to fight this drop out epidemic as well so it’s a great organization, there’s not a lot of bureaucracy where the money goes to fund a new building, Dave Wish is the building, a very small building (laughs), it doesn’t take a lot of repair, all the money just goes, I mean I’ve seen him ship a thousand guitars to a school, it’s really cool.

Elvis, we heard a little bit tonight about how art and music is getting cut a lot here in U.S.  schools and Steven and a couple of other people mentioned how in Europe and other places, the arts are more appreciated. Do you think that’s true?

Elvis Costello: Well, I think everywhere, people will make a cut that they think they can get away with, truthfully you know and that does sound like a politician’s answer, but that is actually the truth and the kids can’t vote right? So the parents have to say something about it and it’s like old people are not going to get to the voting booth as readily so you know, so a little just gets cut here and there. But with the kids it’s a  bit different isn’t it because there’s an awful lot of  talk about economic mumbo jumbo, selling out your future, ransoming out your future or whatever you want to call it and the truth of it is you know it’s a very narrow view to say that, if we just have a whole generation or two of people who are only adept in the sciences or mathematics and don’t have any appreciation for the arts nor ability to express themselves through the arts, that somehow that’s going to be a better society and I don’t think you can actually find that, you can’t find an example of that in history, so you know, where is it a good idea to cut the arts? So it’s not just right now it’s actually what you read about in all the history books.  Doesn’t mean that every kid is going to be a great painter or great musician but they have to know the value and they have to have the chance and tools to do it and it should begin in the classroom. Where else should it?

How hard do you think it is to make it as a musician today, outside of reality television shows and that sort of thing?

Kris Allen: You know what the great thing about music today is, that it’s so accessible, it’s so everywhere. I mean people still steal your music all the time but for making your own music, it’s not that hard to get a computer and a mic and make up some stuff on your own and that’s how technology is kind of amazing.  I feel like it’s going to grow up a totally different generation of musicians and artists and it already has! Something that I did not do when I was a kid, get on my computer and try to make records, I would just sit in my room on my guitar.

I just wanted to ask what your experience was like growing up in school with music?

Robert Randolph: It’s funny you ask that because I’m actually right now starting my own Robert Randolph Foundation, which is geared towards bringing music back towards inner city kids, a full on curriculum, you know for kids of all ages. Me growing up, playing music, I was a drummer then I played saxophone in the band you know but I’ve been on tour for the last 10, 12 years but I didn’t even know they cut out music.  I just found out 2 years ago so you know all my little cousins say there’s no music in schools and they are wondering why all these kids in the inner cities are killing each other because these kids have nothing to do. They’ll sit here and tell you that, they’ll say okay, let me just join a gang because I got nothing to do, meanwhile if they could fuel that energy towards dancing, drums, any kind of music or acting, any kind of arts so, I’m just happy to be part of this event, to be here because the more we can do collectively, the more lives we’ll save, the future stars we’ll get to see grow from here to there, it would be a great thing!

How did you guys get involved with Little Kids Rock?

Midtown Men: Well, we met Bruce back when we were in Jersey Boys and we have some mutual friends, one in particular, Maureen Van Zandt and a good friend of Maureen’s, Sandy Hicks. They connected us finally with Stevie. Maureen has come to see us a number of times and she’s a big fan of ours and then Stevie had an idea for us to sing a song of his and then that led to a collaboration that’s going to go further- he had 2 days in the schedule free, September 15th and 16th,  so did we.  We were in Pennsylvania, sold out crowd of 1700 people and of course he was in DC that night with a sold out crowd of about 50,000.  We took our car about 6 hours to New York City for the recording session the next day and he took a private plane (laughs) so, it was a thrilling time for all of us.  We just got back from California and mixed it with Bob Clearmountain and he said it sounds solid, so it should be out in a few weeks. The organization, Little Kids Rock, we heard about just a few months ago and we heard about Lady Gaga last year being honored and then Steven was honored as ‘Big Man of the Year’ and we thought we’d love to do it. We were hoping for an invite, it came through and we are just so, so- we were just hoping to come and buy a table and then when he invited us to sing we were just so happy to do it.  Besides getting a free meal (laughs) we get to share a stage with Stevie- the best of both worlds.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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